View Full Version : Cougars are nation’s darlings again (drawing comparisons between Ainge and Fredette)

03-23-2011, 02:12 PM
http://rivals.yahoo.com/ncaa/basketball/news;_ylt=AjTWJDIjgfyhoWnBTvhsHmXevbYF?slug=lc-carpenter_cougars_are_nations_darlings_again_03221 1

YAHOO SPORTS, ARTICLE BY LEE CARPENTER. Click on link for video footage!

The video clip looks so hazy now, lost 30 years to a simpler time before the clatter and bustle of the annual March show run amuck. Here was BYU’s first national basketball sensation, a point guard who was also a major league third baseman, pounding the ball, curling, driving, dancing through the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and toward one of the greatest NCAA tournament endings of all time.

Danny Ainge went from one end of Atlanta’s Omni to the other in that Sweet 16 three decades ago, leaping just before the basket to flip a layup over the endless arms of Orlando Woolridge. The ball slipped through the rim. And in that instant came BYU’s finest basketball moment, a one-point win to put it a game from the 1981 Final Four.

The BYU players ran in circles. Ainge jumped. He threw his hands in the air, even before the clock hit zero. Then he was gone, sprinting toward the locker room, away from the roar, taking with him a joy that would take three decades, until now, to grab again.

“We thought we had a better team in 1980 and we got upset by Clemson,” Ainge said Tuesday morning as he moved through an airport, on his way to yet another appointment as the general manager of the Boston Celtics. “In 1981 we were determined not to let what happened the year before happen to us again.”

Come Thursday night it will all be different and yet much is the same. The next great national BYU star is named Jimmer Fredette, a guard who can score from anywhere just like Ainge. In a matter of days he might be named the national player of the year the way Ainge was in 1981. He’s an Internet superstar, an explosion of highlights shipped by laptop, by phone, beamed off blinking satellites in the heavens, back to earth where everything he does seems ethereal in the context of his square torso. At times he appears to hold college basketball in his palm.

“I think it’s fun to have a star at any school,” Ainge said. “And Jimmer is a fun player to watch. He’s a great kid and he plays an exciting brand of basketball. He’s sort of unique in the way he scores and you have kids all over the country trying to emulate his moves. His highlight reels are pretty spectacular.

“But it doesn’t really matter much if you aren’t winning.”

Which makes these next few days so important for a school that is just a little unlike all the others.

Greg Kite, the former Celtics center who was on the 1981 BYU team, compares the college to one of the service academies or the Ivy League – a place with a higher purpose, where sports, while beloved, must be placed in a different perspective. Students take two-year Mormon missions and sign an honor code that prohibits drinking of alcohol and premarital sex. The latter of which arose recently when forward Brandon Davies, a key player on the current team, was suspended for having sex with his girlfriend.

All of this becomes an impediment to the great success many other colleges have. BYU has been able to get decent players but never enough to build up a great postseason run. As proof of this, no other program has been to more NCAA tournaments than BYU’s 26 without making the Final Four.

Then along comes Jimmer, who has already brought a winning not seen in Provo since the days of Ainge. Pushing the Cougars to Houston after the Davies suspension can open players minds to possibilities never considered since Ainge left for the Toronto Blue Jays a few days after the win over Notre Dame.

“It’s tough to recruit at BYU in a way because of the restrictions,” said Kite, who briefly worked as an assistant coach at the school several years ago. “It’s hard because of the honor code. A lot of athletes don’t want to be in an environment like that.”

Fredette and a BYU run toward the Final Four can change all that. It can make the once impossible suddenly seem in reach. In recent years several decent players who grew up in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, like Mark Madsen (who chose Stanford), went elsewhere believing those schools to have the best chance at winning big. Jimmer’s 50-point games, slashes to the basket and 3-point shots from near halfcourt give the school a high profile.

Kite notices that the Cougars home arena, the 22,700-seat Marriott Center, is full again for BYU games. Back when he and Ainge were in college, the Marriott Center was filled all the time. BYU had some of the best attendance figures in college basketball. Then as the Cougars grew stale and nearby Utah rose, the fans stopped coming. Jimmer has changed all that. He has made it the place to be once again.

Two wins this week could change a lot.

Even as Ainge walked through the airport on Tuesday, that day in 1981 was still fresh to him. He can still see the inbounds pass he took just under his own basket. He expected the Notre Dame players to trap him as they had all game. In his mind he thought to look to the open players like Kite downcourt. But as he dribbled he noticed seams in the Notre Dame defense. Suddenly the path to the basket looked open. He drove.

Standing to the side Kite recalls how open he was, so too was forward Steve Trumbo. Ainge knew they were there. This was as obvious as Woolridge standing beneath the rim ready to swat away any shot he threw toward the basket. But in that second, with the crowd at the Omni screaming and time trickling away, he went straight at Woolridge, who jumped. Ainge flicked the ball over Woolridge’s lunging fingers.

“He made the right decision,” Kite said all these years later.

“It was an amazing moment,” Ainge said. “Notre Dame was a big team, they had a fantastic team and being behind for most of the second half we were pretty bleak.”

Thirty years to the week BYU is as close as it was that day and once again the school’s basketball legacy comes down to a guard pounding the ball on an NCAA tournament court, with the nation watching, waiting for magic to happen once again.

Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

03-24-2011, 01:22 AM
Anybody him after the same kind of success as Ainge in the pro's?